Recommendation Tuesday: Biggest Flirts by Jennifer Echols
Recommendation Tuesday started as a joke and is now an official thing. Basically, this is my way of making Tuesday a little more awesome. If you've got a book to recommend on this or any Tuesday, tweet me at @FullShelves and I'll help spread the word.
Jennifer Echols is another relatively well-known author with a book I'm happy to include in my Recommendation Tuesday series. While Jennifer is well-loved by readers, she's generally under-recognized by gatekeeper types, despite having embraced positive depictions of teen girl sexuality and identity in her novels for many years.
Her latest, Biggest Flirts--the first in a new series of connected novels, is no different.
Tia, the first person narrator of Biggest Flirts, is a senior at her Florida high school, drummer in the marching band and notorious flirt. She unashamedly prefers casual hookups, eschewing boyfriends, and even has a regular hookup buddy (Sawyer, who's going to be a main character in the third book in the Superlatives series).
Tia misreads new guy Will as a fellow "player" (Tia's word) at a party before the first week of marching band camp and he's disappointed that despite their having a memorable evening in Tia's bedroom, she's not into the idea of being anyone's girlfriend.
“Our time together was all a misunderstanding to begin with,” I said. “He misread me as girlfriend material. I misread him as a player. By the time we found out we were wrong about each other, it was too late.”
Of course, it turns out that Minnesota hockey player Will is also in the band, a competitive drummer like Tia, and the chemistry between them is obvious to everyone, including the student body, which quickly votes them "Biggest Flirts" for their senior year yearbook.
It's funny, Biggest Flirts isn't my favorite Jennifer Echols novel (that would be Such a Rush followed by Going Too Far), but I so admire what she's done in creating Tia's character. Tia is basically the opposite of the sort of teenager I was, but I found her completely compelling thanks to her unapologetic nature and commitment to underachieving (which doesn't go too well for her).
So I’d accepted the job. And I’d done whatever Bob and Roger asked me to do—a long list of responsibilities that had expanded over the past year and two summers to include inventory, bookkeeping, and payroll. When Bob took a turn for the worse, sometimes I got so stressed out that I cleaned and organized the shop. That just made them love me more, raise my pay, and load more responsibility on my shoulders. It was terrible. I didn’t know how to get out of this vicious circle.
Because Echols is so great at crafting characters, I empathized with Tia's reluctance about, well, everything, even though it's not something I found "relatable" (gosh, I have a lot of thoughts on that concept--shocker, they're very complicated thoughts).
When I was getting ready to spotlight Biggest Flirts a a Tuesday recommendation, I broke one of my rules and poked around Goodreads to see how other folks reacted to Tia, since I suspected that she, like Leah from Such a Rush, would be a polarizing character.
And my oh my, are there a lot of readers who can't stand Tia.
They're bothered by her casual sexual relationship with Sawyer, her reluctance to be Will's girlfriend and her commitment to just flying under the radar, despite her obvious smarts and competence in school and band. And while I wouldn't judge anyone for their reaction to a fictional character (there are certainly some that push my buttons), people's dislike of Tia is particularly interesting to me because she so often zigs against social and cultural expectations of women.
“It’s not just a sex thing,” I said quickly. “You can have a boyfriend without having sex. You can have sex without getting pregs. It’s not sex that messes people up. It’s love. You can have sex and protect yourself and still keep out of trouble. It’s love that starts to tangle everything up, and makes you think that an army private who’s been to juvie would make a great dad, and that seventeen is the perfect age to start a family. When my sisters and I used to talk about sex, it wasn’t embarrassing as long as we were being honest. It’s love that confuses things and makes you unable to explain later why you didn’t use a condom. Love and pressure and the feeling that you’re everything when you’re with this guy, and when he leaves you, you’re less than you were before. If you fall in love, you attach yourself to somebody, and you can’t do what you want ever again.”
There's a feminist undertone to Biggest Flirts that maybe a lot of folks won't see, but it's there in that Tia's truth is a story worth telling, unapologetically. What is particularly clever about this book (and other Echols novels), as opposed to the more overtly message-heavy books that explore similar themes, is that Echols wraps this subversion of expectations women and girls in a romantic comedy package. There's a lot of merit to exploring this, and other important issues, in accessible genre fiction like this. It's too bad that because so many folks look down their noses at genre fiction, especially romance, and are unlikely to discover the hidden "meat" in books like Biggest Flirts. (Yes, this is a bigger subject, and yes, we're planning a podcast discussion on this topic.)
*steps off high horse*
Biggest Flirts was also just a whole lot of fun.
I'm a recovering band nerd and and the band antics were absolutely spot-on. Band is inherently hilarious, and kind of a weird subculture and Echols nailed that.
Also, Will and Tia's extrovert versus introvert dynamic is so great.
“Even if DeMarcus hadn’t snagged one office and Aidan the other, I wouldn’t have gotten them. I’m not the man my parents thought I was, or I thought I was. I’m . . . I think I’m . . .” I held my breath, my mind spinning at what he might say. “Shy,” he sighed.
I burst into laughter. “Well, you’ve got that one right.”
“It’s not funny,” he said. I considered him beside me, looming over me, really, when he was sitting so close, his muscular body making the room seem smaller. He had a big personality, too, one that didn’t seem aptly described by the word “shy”.
“You’re introverted,” I corrected him. He shrugged.
“You get your energy from being by yourself,” I guessed. This was Harper’s description of the strange phenomenon I did not understand. “Having to talk to a bunch of people at once, especially people you don’t know, makes you feel drained.”
Despite that I really loved that Will was an introvert (and it wasn't depicted as a bad thing), I imagine this will be a barrier for some people buying into him as a love interest. Because his personality is very inward-focused, the reader doesn't learn as much about him as is typical of the "hero" role in romantic fiction. If you're hoping for John After, you're not going to get him in Will, but he's a good guy and I love seeing good guys as love interests, especially in YA.
Other good things happening in Biggest Flirts: Rich friendships, a diverse cast of characters and some great comedic moments (like I said, band is inherently hilarious).
Disclosure: Review copy provided by the publisher.